Chilies!

I really like spicy food, but my wife takes the love of chilies to a whole new level. She has her standards, and one could even argue that she is obsessed with spiciness. I learned one possible reason why, when reading a side-bar on the menu at Tamarind in Luang Prabang:

Why is there such a love of chili worldwide? Because when we eat them, our bodies product a natural high or ‘”chili buzz.” Lovers of hot and spicy food are probably addicted!

The chili pepper is an amazing fruit (yes, it is a actually a fruit). Some Burmese would starve without them, and their use of chilies may explain why they don’t get sick when eating their unrefrigerated leftovers:

Rich in Vitamin C, they [chilies] act as natural preservatives. Drying chilies concentrates the natural sugars and intensifies their flavors, and dried chilies give sauces complex flavors and spiciness.

In case the chili wasn’t impressive enough, I was recently informed that India is planning to use their spiciest “ghost chili” (which we sampled in Bangalore) to make eco-friendly hand grenades!

Lauren likes chilies
Lauren loves chilies

Mangosteen

Kenny and I first tried a mangosteen on our last trip to Thailand, on Ko Phi Phi in December 2008. We had heard that the mangosteen was a serious contender for the title of Best Tropical Fruit Ever, and we were eager to understand the hype. Alas, the mangosteen that we tried was a bad sample. It was dried up on the inside and kind of chalky; we knew something was amiss.

We finally got another opportunity to try a mangosteen last week in Laos. Our Luang Prabang guesthouse was just around the corner from a sizable produce market, and one of the sellers had particularly delectable looking fruits. We picked up a bunch of tiny bananas, a mango, some rambutans, and one mangosteen to try. This first one was so good that we went back to the produce market for several more over the following days.

Mangosteens have a thick, coarse, purple-brown skin and are almost perfectly round. The fleshy fruit inside comes in sections and has a soft, almost marshmallow-y texture, like a very ripe mango. The taste is sweet with a touch of tart, and a little creamy, with a fuller flavor than the sugar apple.

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How much is that mangosteen in the bucket?

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My name is Mangosteen. Bruce Mangosteen.

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Bruce Mangosteen with his two brothers, Bill and Xavier

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Delicious mangosteen flesh

On our Vietnam Airlines flight from Hanoi to Nha Trang, we found an article in the in-flight magazine about traditional fruits used for offerings during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. One of these is the mangosteen, which is popular in the south. According to the article:

These fruits are essential for offering plates. Choosing good mangosteens is not easy, so families feel proud to offer perfect mangosteens to their guests.

Hopefully we’ll find more delicious mangosteens available here in South Vietnam, given their apparent significance.

Little Vid does Laos

Regular Vid was here back in 2004. Her avatar got to follow in her footsteps over 5 years later.

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Little Vid keeping the Buddhas company at Wat Si Saket in Vientiane

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Little Vid enjoying vegetarian dips at Tamarind in Luang Prabang

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Cleaning up after the feast

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Joining some mosaic friends on a walk through the mosaic forest at Wat Xiengthong in Luang Prabang

Tiger Trekking Triathlon III: Kayaking

On the second day of our Luang Prabang trek, we didn’t need to leave until 8:30, but we were up at 4AM. Turns out that while roosters may indeed crow at dawn, there’s no guarantee that they won’t crow before dawn.

After breakfast, we packed up and hiked for about an hour to Tad Sae waterfall… which didn’t have very much water in it. Then we hopped into another boat, which took us back to Elephant Village, where we started our kayak trip down the Nam Khan and back to Luang Prabang. The river was beautiful, and kayaking was fun, but I was exhausted. About an hour into our three hour kayak trip, I was ready to be finished. But we slogged through it, and when we arrived back in LP we were ready for well-deserved showers, clean clothes, and massages.

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Kayaking down the Nam Khan. I look exhausted because I am.

Tiger Trekking Triathlon II: Hiking

After lunch, we hopped in a small motor boat and rode to the starting point of our hike. On the way, we observed some of the daily activities of locals who make their livelihoods from the river. We disembarked at a small Khmu village to begin our trek. Our guide explained that the Khmu people are an ethnic minority with origins in Cambodia, and that their language was very similar to Khmer. He taught us how to say “hello” in Khmu (I’ve already forgotten), and as we walked through the village we waved and said hello to the the many kids hanging out and playing sports (our guide explained that they were on a school holiday).

Then we spent the afternoon hiking through beautiful countryside and a couple of Hmong villages. The first Hmong village we passed through was a new settlement, where a number of families had recently relocated for better proximity to water and a school. We passed through the older villages that the families had migrated from as well, where the current inhabitants still need to walk for 30 minutes to the nearest stream and over an hour to the nearest school. One of the most interesting people we observed was a blacksmith, making knives outside his house using very rustic materials.

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30 minutes walk for fresh water, but what a view!

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Making knives

After three hours or so of hiking in the hot Laos sun, we arrived at Hoify, the Khmu village where we’d be spending the night. Hoify is a large-ish village of about 70 families, mostly living in thatched huts with palm leaf roofs. We spent a few minutes resting our weary bodies, and then took a walk around the village to check it out. Unfortunately the language barrier made it difficult to connect with the people we saw around the village, but many of the kids were friendly and seemed rather curious about the strange Westerners spending a night in their town.

We also got to watch the local boys play a very exciting game called ka-taw, which was sort of a cross between volleyball and soccer. Players may use their heads, feet, knees, etc. to get the ball over the net. These boys had some fantastic moves, and Kenny decided to try his hand at sports photography while we  watched them play. We think that they may have even started pulling out some of their fancier stunts once they realized we were watching. ;)

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When ka-taw becomes an Olympic sport, the kid in the green shorts will lead Laos to victory

While the boys played, many women and young girls worked hard, carrying food and buckets of water, and making brooms to sell. Our guide told us that this gender disparity was a common theme among the ethnic minority groups in Laos – women do most of the hard work while men work shorter hours and get to spend more time relaxing.

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Drying leaves to use for brooms

Hoify Village, like many others near Luang Prabang, only has power in the evenings, when they turn on their generator. Much of the town congregates in one of the larger houses to crowd around a television playing Thai and Lao karaoke VCDs. Visitors pay a small admission fee at the door. We joined to watch a few music videos, and our guide treated us to our first taste of lao-lao (it tastes like strong sake).

Next event: kayaking.

See you in the next post…

Tiger Trekking Triathlon I: Cycling

Before arriving in Laos, we had heard good things about trekking around the Luang Prabang area in general, and about Tiger Trails in particular. So we stopped by their office on our first day in LP and browsed the myriad tour options. Unable to decide between mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking, we found a “combination” tour that included all three.

A few days later, we met our guide in town and hopped on a songthaew to pick up our bikes. We rode 15km or so from LP to Elephant Village, stopping at a forest wat and a small weaving village along the way. Elephant Village seems to have a similar mission to Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand, if a very different style – they aim to rehabilitate and protect elephants, but they also offer posh-looking tourist accommodations. We put our feet up for a little while before lunch and checked out the views of the Nam Khan River. Our guide told us “relax”, which was easy enough to do while hanging out on a lounge chair in a riverside hut.

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The forest wat

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The view from our hut at Elephant Village

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Next event: hiking.

To be continued…

This Little Piggy Went to the Night Market

The Luang Prabang night market offers one of the more pleasant shopping experiences I’ve found in Asia. It’s picturesque, not overly crowded, and there’s absolutely no pressure from the vendors. In India they may say “looking is free” but here they really mean it! It’s also unnecessary to engage in excessive haggling here – prices are reasonable to start out, and the vendors expect only a bit of gentle bargaining.

The market takes over the main street of town every day starting around 4pm, and offers the only evening activity in town, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure how late it runs because we’ve been calling it a night early these days. In case you get hungry from all of the shopping, street food abounds! At the end of the market is a block of sandwich and fruit shake vendors, and the carts selling grilled meats and the vegetarian buffet are just around the corner.

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We couldn’t resist this little hand-sewn book with a wolf on the cover. We know that our future kids will love it.

Eating on the Street

We haven’t been that impressed with the restaurants in Luang Prabang. They are quite touristy, and while we’re very interested in trying Lao food, at most places the Lao section of the menu has seemed like an afterthought. However, the street food in this town is fantastic. There’s a lot of variety, and it’s always fun to graze on smaller bites from a variety of food stalls. In addition to fresh coconut buns, we’ve had a lot of other tasty mobile dining fare this past week:

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Delicious and ubiquitous tofu sandwiches at the edge of the night market for 10,000 kip (about $1.10)

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Vegetarian buffet: as much as you can fit in a bowl for 8,000 kip, plus 1,000 kip per spring roll

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Nutella-banana crepe!

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Grilled fish and meats impaled with sprigs of lemongrass. We shared a delicious fish.

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Dragon fruit shake for 5,000 kip

Kuang Si Waterfall

The heavy rains that soaked us in Vientiane are nowhere to be found here in HOT Luang Prabang, so Kenny and I decided to make an afternoon trip to Kuang Si waterfall. We met a couple of Germans at our guest house with the same idea, so we shared a songthaew for the 45-minute scenic trip.

When we arrived, we dined on the delicious picnic lunch we had brought along, and then went for a hike up to the source of the waterfall. From the top, we were able to look down upon one of the terraces below, where a group of very young novice monks had found a great natural swimming pool.

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Sloth bear, Kenny bear, Spectacled bear

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Delicious picnic of fruits, vegetables, and baguette

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Young monks at play

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